A beginner’s guide to dealing with session musicians

Posted: March 21, 2016 in Fiddle stuff, recording, working musicians
Tags: , ,

A fiddle player’s thoughts on the etiquette of dealing with session musicians……….

Let’s say you’re a self-taught songwriter –  or an indie band  – and you’ve hired a session musician to put those final magic touches to your recording. There’s just one problem….you have no idea what to say to them when they arrive in the studio. Sound familiar? As both a session musician and a songwriter I’ve been both sides of this; I’m well aware that directing session musicians can be an intimidating prospect, especially for artists with little formal training. So here’s some suggestions:

1). Have a clear idea of why you want the instrument on the track

From my own experience, artists tend not to have very developed ideas of what they’d like me to play; they simply have a vague idea that it would be nice to have some fiddle on a track. That’s fine, but if you leave it as wide open as that there’s no guarantee you’ll like what I come up with. To a large degree this is just a matter of taste, and of what you’re hearing on the song fiddle-wise, but keep in mind I don’t have access to what you’re hearing in your head! Do you want it as a texture throughout the whole song, or do you want fills, a ripping solo in the middle of the track? A good place to start is to direct me to a track that you like (by another artist)* which features fiddle. Send me some samples prior to the session, maybe give me some examples of things you definitely don’t want, and I guarantee it’ll result in a more positive experience for everyone – you, me, and your engineer. And nobody wants an unhappy engineer working on their project.

2). Anything is better than a blank page.

You should expect your session musician to do a bit of homework before they show up for a recording session, but don’t make us fumble blindly for information that you’ve got and are not sharing. Most people I’ve recorded for send me a pre-production track and nothing else. Then I spend some time working out the structure & harmonic progression of the tune and build my fiddle line from there. You could save me some time by giving me some paper. Even if you’ve no charts and no idea how to notate lines, why not send me a lyric sheet so I have a road map to work from? Don’t be afraid to state what might seem to you to be obvious – you wrote the song so to you it’s self-evident which is the verse and which one’s the chorus, for example. Well I’m hearing this song for the first time, so it might not be so obvious to me.

Good example: I recently recorded for a songwriter who had some insecurity about his lack of formal training and continuously apologised for the fact that he doesn’t read music. But he sent me a clear plan of the song structure and chords, outlined which parts of the song did and did not require fiddle, and, best of all, was able to sing me a rough outline of the fiddle line he had in mind. Perfect. That’s all I need. And you don’t need to be able to read music to do that.

3). Respect your musicians’ time. Don’t call me in for 10am if I won’t be recording until 3pm.

This is a management issue, not a musical one, but it’s important. I’m amazed how often I’m called in for the start of a recording session, only to be greeted with ‘Oh yeah, we’re just starting in on the drums and bass now, not sure when we’ll be ready for the fiddle’. Did you think about that at all before you gave me the same call time as the rhythm section?! Unless you want a seething musician on your hands, it’s worth spending a few minutes scheduling your session properly.

4). If you’re asking me to work for free, do not, under any circumstances, try to make it seem like an opportunity for me.

About 50% of the artists who book me for recording sessions will try to get me to do it for free, or at the very least look for a discount because ‘we’re on a tight budget’. This is a bit of a cheeky thing to ask of a stranger, but ok, there’s no money in original music so I’m not completely unsympathetic. However if you try to tell me it’ll be good for my career – the classic phrase is ‘it’ll be good exposure’ – you can expect me to double my fee.

Hope that’s some help. Happy recording 🙂

*It is worth noting that most people pick either Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys, or Bob Dylan’s Hurricane.


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